Lawmakers 'failed us' says ICE chief

Lawmakers 'failed us' says ICE chief
© Aaron Schwartz

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) acting Director Mark Morgan was first exposed to the complicated relationship between law enforcement and politics as a cop on the beat for the Los Angeles Police Department in the racially fraught post-riot 1990s.

“That was a tough environment,” Morgan told The Hill in a sit-down interview last week. “You had elected leaders, you had other people — faith-based organizations — that were out there as well saying very negative things.”

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“I felt they were furthering the divisiveness and the divide that we had. And as an officer, that was tough. It was tough,” he added. “And it’s tough for the men and women of ICE.”

Morgan now leads an agency that’s at the center of another debate infused with race: the federal government’s treatment of undocumented immigrants.

But whether it’s the LAPD in the mid-1990s or ICE under President TrumpDonald John TrumpAlaska Republican Party cancels 2020 primary Ukrainian official denies Trump pressured president Trump goes after New York Times, Washington Post: 'They have gone totally CRAZY!!!!' MORE today, Morgan says the culprit is the same — public figures who deride controversial law enforcement agencies.

“I would say that Congress, and I say this, and I stick to this, Congress has failed the American people,” he said.

Since Trump’s inauguration, the administration has repeatedly tried to get Congress to radically change asylum laws, particularly to extend the amount of time the federal government can detain families seeking asylum in the United States.

“Specifically with the immigration system, they have failed us,” Morgan said. “Because they will talk about the laws and how they need to be changed and what’s going on. But yet, they have [an] inability to change the laws and do their job. But then they attack the law enforcement agencies for doing our jobs and enforcing the laws that they enacted. And that’s what gets the men and women frustrated.”

There has always been palpable tension between the Trump administration and immigrant rights activists, but multiple incidents have raised tensions even further, including the initial rollout of Trump’s travel ban, the “zero tolerance” policy resulting in family separations and the rescission of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Those crises predated Morgan’s tenure, but he took over ICE as border apprehensions of asylum-seeking Central American families peaked, rendering federal immigrant detention centers insufficient.

Reports of deteriorating conditions in those centers led to severe criticism, including from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOcasio-Cortez reveals new policies for campaign aides with children Kennedy launches primary challenge against Markey The Memo: 'Whistleblower' furor gains steam MORE (D-N.Y.), who last week made waves when she called the centers “concentration camps.”

“It’s completely inappropriate, it’s reckless, it’s irresponsible, it’s misinformed and it’s flat-out wrong,” Morgan said in response to Ocasio-Cortez in a separate interview last week with Hill.TV.

Morgan said his experience at the LAPD taught him that constant communication with the public is necessary for law enforcement to perform in a difficult climate, but it also taught him to build relationships with critics.

“It’s a lot harder to call somebody a name, to call somebody a Nazi, or say somebody is a liar — I think it’s a lot harder to say that when you actually have a relationship, when they actually get to know the person that’s behind the badge,” he said.

Morgan has been prolific in granting interviews since taking over ICE, building on a focus on communications that helped him land the job.

Early on in Trump’s presidency, Morgan was booted from his short stint as Border Patrol chief, a post he occupied in the final year of former President Obama’s second term.

Morgan made a name for himself as a cheerleader for Trump’s immigration policies on the conservative cable circuit, eventually getting a callback last month to head ICE.

Previously, Morgan spent 10 years in the Marine Corps before his one-year stint in the LAPD, a combined 20 years at the FBI and a short stretch as assistant commissioner of Customs and Border Protection.

“I just see myself as a public servant. I mean, really, my entire adult life, I enlisted in the Marine Corps when I was 19 and I’ve been serving this great nation at some level my entire life,” he said.

Morgan will be on the spot over the next two weeks, the deadline Trump set on Twitter for Democrats in Congress to “quickly negotiate simple changes to Asylum and Loopholes” before “big Deportation begins!” If the raids go forward, scrutiny on Morgan will increase even further.

Democrats successfully derailed previous administration attempts to capitalize on immigration crises to change asylum protection rules, even before they held a majority in the House.

But those wins were helped by court rulings, especially in the case of DACA, which remains in effect even after Trump canceled the program in 2017.

Democrats took Trump’s threat last week of massive deportation raids seriously — the two-week reprieve was won by Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTimeline: The Trump whistleblower complaint DC statehood push faces long odds despite record support Ukraine could badly damage both Donald Trump and the Democrats MORE (D-Calif.), who called Trump on Friday to request a delay.

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Still, the debate over conditions in federal immigrant detention centers raged on, as reports on the conditions of detainee minors circulated over the weekend.

After Trump’s reversal on the raids and deportations, Morgan will be tasked with maintaining a credible threat in the mind of Democrats — the agency’s lack of detention space was cited as an obstacle to executing massive raids — without losing Republican support.

Morgan recognized that, beyond the acrimony surrounding ICE as an institution, its core mission of interior immigration enforcement will inevitably put it at odds with certain sectors.

“And I’ll submit to you, not only is that hard to build trust in a community, where you have all this vitriol, all this just venom that’s being poured out towards an agency, that makes it hard for us to build trust. We would like to,” said Morgan.

“But on the other hand, we have to face reality as well. So we’re an agency whose statutory mandated job is to go into communities, apprehend people that are here illegally, and remove them. That’s a tough job. That’s a tough job,” he added.